(This was my sermon this past Sunday…complete with poster signs I held up. The names are members of our congregation that were there….)
Imagine that we are all followers of Jesus “back in the day.”
On a bright sunny morning, we all go with Jesus to the temple. The Temple, near completion of a huge renovation project that has been going on the 46 years, looks over the city in spectacular fashion...a breathtaking tribute to God and to humanity’s architectural ingenuity. The excitement of entering the holy place is overwhelming...its all we’ve been talking about...seeing so many people together, sharing in common a vision of God’s purpose in the world, and a hope for the future represented by the temple. You just want to take it all in...to fulfill the image in your heart and mind of the great sacred space.
Our group walks in: and is greeted by the following sign:
“WELCOME TO THE TEMPLE! PLEASE CHECK IN AT THE RECEPTIONIST’S DESK.”
We go over to the desk. Fortunately, the line at the desk is not too long. When it’s our turn, Sheelagh says. “Good morning! There are 73 of us.”
The person at the desk responds: “You’ll need to purchase your unblemished animals from the market booths, over there to the left and into the main hall. The moneychangers are there on the right...remember, the temple only accepts temple coinage. Please keep small children with you at all times. The sanctuary and the priests’ quarters are not open to the public. Thank you for coming, and enjoy your day at the temple!”
Among our group, we hear a wince from Jesus.
So we go over to the moneychangers. There are a lot of tables...unfortunately only one of them is currently open, and the line is rather long. The rates are posted on a sign about the tables.
“1 TEMPLE COIN = 14 DENARI”
You hear Jesus muttering to himself.
We buy a temple coin for everyone, and Mell insists on buying a second coin for Jesus, so he as the leader can give the appropriate larger offering. Perhaps there’s a part of Jesus that appreciates the gesture, but he’s got a strange expression on his face.
We then proceeds to the booths. It is a chaotic place, with so many people surrounding the area around the sellers, and all of the sounds of the bleating of sheep, the mooing of cattle, the cooing of doves. We only notice the sign as we get close to the front.
UNBLEMINSHED CATTLE: 25 TEMPLE COINS
UNBLEMISHED SHEEP: 10 TEMPLE COINS
UNBLEMISHED DOVES 2 TEMPLE COINS PER PAIR
THESE ARE OFFERINGS ARE GUARANTEED
ACCEPTABLE BY GOD
Joan quickly turns to Jesus and says, “We can combine our coins for families, and I’ll send David back to the moneychangers to get a few more. We’ll be fine.
But Jesus isn’t listening.
His face has turned a shade of dark purple.
Anne-Marie says to Bill, “Why don’t you take Jesus outside for some air.”
But it’s too late...Jesus loses it.
We all stand in shock as Jesus “makes a whip of cords, and drives them all out of the temple.”
We try to hold him back, as “Jesus pours out the coins of the moneychangers and overturns their tables.”
We look nervously around to see if the authorities are on there way when Jesus yells, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
And our jaws really hit the floor when Jesus shouts at the leaders “Destroy this Temple...and in three days I will raise it up!”
Wow!!! This is really not good...we might not get out of this alive…
You can imagine that it was a difficult day to be a disciple of Jesus.
Some thoughts about today’s episode:
First off, any time someone gives you only the “gentle, meek and mild” picture of Jesus, we need to remember that wasn’t the only way Jesus could be.
I think gentleness, patience and understanding are still core qualities of Jesus, but at least in his human life, Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions.
It is important for us to attempt to understand where Jesus’ anger was coming from.
It is possible that Jesus did not care for seeing the temple run as a business: with the marketplace inside the holy area. But Jesus would have certainly understood the necessity here. People came from great distances to visit and give offerings at the temple. One could hardly expect someone to bring unblemished animals over a great distance. While the practice may seem distasteful to us, it was the holy practice set up according to scripture. It was a practice that was to end at a time decreed by God. The book of Zechariah, in the 14th chapter, states that “There shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of Hosts on that day” meaning the day when the Lord comes to Jerusalem.
Jesus may have understood that is was his role to end this practice...or looking back, his disciples may have decided that Jesus as Lord would have been the one to end this practice.
Regardless, it really does not explain Jesus’ anger...he would have understood why the selling of animals was going on, even if he didn’t care for it.
It seems clear to me that Jesus’ anger really comes from the Temple’s attempt to profit from the holy practice. Specifically, I think he’s set off by the blatant price gauging he finds at the temple.
Roman coins, or any other foreign currency, were not to be used in the temple. So it was necessary to exchange the currencies for temple coinage. The presence of the money changers inside the temple suggest that the practice had become a money making technique...where the average person lost out in the exchange. To further the gauging, everything costs more inside the temple. The animals themselves were marked up to an inflated price: a “convenience fee” if you will, that was of course passed along to the pilgrim and pocketed by the temple leaders.
We see this practice in our society all the time...and I know I for one tend to get angry when I experience this sort of thing.
Well, when Jesus gets angry, he doesn’t hold back! He loses his temper, and even gets violent.
Justified? Yeah, I think so. A clear abuse is going on.
Helpful? Well, he certainly gets the point across that he’s really ticked off. Certainly the temple leaders get the message as they come out to argue with him. I feel the need to point out, however, that those who were “whipped with cords” and even the moneychangers who had their tables overturned and had to clean things up, were only doing their jobs. They were the workforce, not the management. They were stuck in the system, not setting the policy. They got the brunt of Jesus’ anger, and I’m not sure upon reflection that they were the ones who deserved it. (I bet after Jesus calmed down, he would have admitted that.)
Was Jesus’ action costly? You better believe it! You can get away with saying a lot of things. But when you mess with the bottom line: ie., the money...you’re messing with fire. The Romans, who certainly profited from the money flow into the temple, would be far more willing to listen to charges about someone upsetting the finances of the system than about someone healing on the Sabbath. This action of Jesus’ in the temple was likely a major factor in the Romans deciding to execute him.
With all this in mind, I wonder: did Jesus regret his actions? I don’t think Jesus regretted taking a stand, and certainly he was willing to pay the cost of upsetting the Romans and Temple leaders. But perhaps, afterwards, he might have wished that he approached things differently. There’s no way to know for sure. I wonder, though, what it was like later that night with his friends. Did Jesus say “I’m sorry, my friends, I let my anger get the best of me.” Was he embarrassed that I he lost control? I wonder if he ever saw one of the traders or moneychangers again. Did he say, “I’m sorry you got caught in that...it wasn’t really about you...and it wasn’t right of me to attack you for doing your job.”?
While I can’t know if Jesus did any of these things, I have to believe that when I lose control of my anger, even when I’m justified, that Jesus would want me to foster healing where I could.
Finally, there is the bold statement about the Temple:
“Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
The temple leaders took Jesus’ words literally, asking, “This temple has been under construction for 46 years, and will you raise it up in three days?”
The Gospel writer John sees this allegorically, and traditionally the church has as well. The Gospel of John says, “He was speaking of the temple of his body, and pointing to the resurrection.”
I can certainly see how looking back at things, we can understand Jesus’ words this way. But I wonder if that was what Jesus was really talking about, in the heat of the moment.
Perhaps there is a third option. Could the statement “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up” really be about the community of God? Perhaps Jesus’ biggest condemnation of the temple leaders is that they were failing to care for and build up the community.
Jesus implies the “You” in this statement: If you destroy this temple...
If the temple ceases to be what it is meant to be
(If the church ceases to be what it is meant to be)
Then, Jesus says, I can raise up a new community in three days time. In three days, and I’ll have a new community of people that more reflects the vision God has for the world!
This is a bold and powerful statement, and speaks to the church today just as powerfully as 2000 years ago.
It clearly says that we (the church) are not as important as we think we are...meaning that our buildings, our customs, our particular word choices and so on are not as critical to God’s (or our own) well being as we like to think. We aren’t entitled to anything simply because we’re the church. And we are certainly not called to protect God from those who are pursing truth and justice.
There’s a great line in one of U2’s new songs: “stop helping God across the street like a little old lady.” (Stand Up Comedy, 2009)
In other words, stop acting like we’re God’s protectors. Remember, it’s the other way around.
Thankfully, there is powerful good news here as well. Jesus really wants us to be the community of God. He doesn’t want to see the temple destroyed, he doesn’t want to see a system that hurts instead of protects. Jesus, for that matter, wants every religious community, no matter what their beliefs, to live into God’s vision of truth, justice and peace.
He is, in fact, so passionate about the religious community and its importance to society, that he acts out of character in this story...he is moved to anger and even violent action when the church fails to be what it is called to be.
That passion is essential for our lives today. We are called to live into that passion that Jesus has for the religious community, one centered on what is just and good, welcoming everyone who comes searching for the holy in their lives.
Thanks be to God!